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Looking to PCs for medical cures

Researcher David Baker believes the key to an AIDS vaccine or a cancer may be that old PC sitting under a layer of dust in your closet or the one on your desk doing little else but running a screen saver.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2006 14:25 IST

Researcher David Baker believes the key to an AIDS vaccine or a cancer may be that old PC sitting under a layer of dust in your closet or the one on your desk doing little else but running a screen saver.

Those outdated or idle computers may be just what Baker needs to turn his ideas into scientific breakthroughs. Baker, 43, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Washington, realised about two years ago that he didn’t have access to the computing horsepower needed for his research – nor the money to buy time on supercomputers elsewhere.

So he turned to the kindness — and the computers — of strangers. Using software made popular in a massive yet so far fruitless search for intelligent life beyond Earth, he and his team are tapping the computing power of tens of thousands of PCs whose owners are donating spare computer time to chop away at scientific problems over the Internet.

Baker’s Rosetta@home project is attracting PC users who like the idea of helping find a cure for cancer and admire the way Baker has involved regular people in his research that aims to predict how protein structures unfold at the atomic level.

“We’re getting these volunteer virtual communities popping up that are doing wonderful things,” Baker said. “People like to get together for good causes.”

Baker's work could one day lead to cures to diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s. The project takes a more direct approach to other diseases, like an HIV vaccine.
In that case, his team hopes to develop a way to help the body recognise critical parts of the virus’ proteins so that it can no longer hide from the body’s immune system.

The project sends work to computers that have installed the necessary free software. When the machine is idle, it figures out how an individual protein — a building block of life — might fold or contort, displaying the possibilities in a screen saver.

When the PC is done crunching, it sends the results back to Baker’s team and grabs more work. More than 60,000 people are donating computer power to Baker’s research – equivalent to the power of one supercomputer.

He hopes to increase that number by at least tenfold.